Trapped By Car Dependence: Stories From Commute-Battered Americans

Meet Darren Flenoy, a Bay Area security guard who lives 40 miles from work. Gas costs him about $500 a month. His car payment is another $500. On top of that, he spends $80 per month on insurance and $180 on tolls.

In total, Darren’s commute costs him half of his monthly income. He must work seven days a week to make ends meet.

Then there’s Ro, a 23-year-old recent college graduate who lives with her parents in Vallejo, California. To reach her job in San Francisco, she must commute 20 miles in her 1994 Nissan Pathfinder to a BART station.

Gas costs her $20 to $30 dollars per day. Sometimes in order to make ends meet, she skips lunch.

There are thousands — millions — of Americans with stories just like theirs. A Georgia mother who commutes two hours daily. A college student who uses student loans to pay for gas. A contractor whose unpredictable gas expenses force him to reduce staff.

These people and others are sharing their stories on a blog called The Energy Trap. The premise of the project, run by the New America Foundation’s Lisa Margonelli, is that because many Americans have so few choices outside of automobile travel, they are effectively “trapped” in a vicious cycle where they must own a car to hold a job, but the cost of their commute consumes much of their income. For an average American household with an annual income of $50,000, car ownership costs about $8,000 a year — more than they will pay in taxes or spend on healthcare.

All told, Americans spend $489 billion annually on gasoline. Every 25-cent increase in the price of gas costs households $90 million per day. That’s hitting a lot of Americans very hard, especially right now as real wages stagnate and unemployment levels remain high.

The problem isn’t that gas prices are too high per se — in fact, many say they’re not high enough — but that commuters don’t have adequate transportation options for getting to work affordably.

“There are many ways to spring the Energy Trap; first we need to recognize how much it’s cramping both family budgets and the economy at large,” the project website states. “Figuring out new ways to get people to work will leave more money in their pockets and reduce traffic jams, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, while allowing Americans to choose how much we spend for gas.”

44 thoughts on Trapped By Car Dependence: Stories From Commute-Battered Americans

  1. The problem is not entirely car dependence, but is also poor decision making.  A $500 car payment?  Really?  Rather than buy a economical car like a Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa, people feel the need to own image enhancing SUV’s which cost more to buy, maintain, and fuel. 
    Another problem is the concept of saving up and buying a car is practically non existent.  It can be done, but people don’t think that way, everyone seems to assume that financing is the only logical way to buy a car.  It just makes it needlessly more expensive. 

  2. I was just going to say the same thing as Driver… $515 per month on car?!  How about not buying a $25,000+ car and buying a $15,000 car?   Keeping in mind that *slightly* smaller car gets *much* better gas mileage.

  3. Also — Why is “Ro” only getting 8 miles to the gallon in her ’94 Pathfinder?  Does her gas tank leak?

    I get the concept here.  I support, 2,000%, better transportation options…. but this piece seems a bit all over the place and doesn’t seem to support that need. 

    And why is the example of the contractor even included?  What does a business owner who can’t figure out how to budget for fuel costs have to do with public transportation?

  4. Not counting trips independent of commuting, I reckon that he is getting about 15 miles per gallon. Not a good deal.

  5. they should spend more time providing realistic examples and less time embellishing to get dramatic figures:

    80mile round trip commute x 7 days a week = 560 miles
    In a decent car (my hyundai accent for example) 30 MPG or 18.6 gallons per week
    even at $4.50 a gallon, that is $84 per week for gas, or $336/month

    That same car was bought new in 2010 on a 5 year loan with a 2% APR promotional loan, monthly payment of about $275/month

    That gets you:
    $336 gas
    $275 payment
    $80 insurance
    $180 tolls

    $871/month for transportation alone.  That is still a pretty dramatic figure, and doesn’t require embellishment or odd decision making.  It is best to go with examples that people can relate to and say, “yea, my situation is like that too and it makes me angry” 

  6. Disagree with the first two posters. Given how we’ve structured our land uses in America, many of us are forced to spend time each day behind the wheel. Better to spend it in a vehicle you enjoy driving than in a penalty box that makes you cringe every time you step behind the wheel. The Versa and Yaris are the car equivalent of a department store Huffy bicycle – yeah, they’re bikes… but barely. The $500/month loan payment mentioned in the article could be due to a bank’s refusal to grant a 5 year term due to credit issues rather than a payment on an extravagant vehicle.

  7. It really is not appropriate to suggest we need to find ways for people to commute without a car, when in many cases there are location efficient communities with affordable housing and transit access that are mired in urban decay.  The solution is not to bring transportation options to the people, but to bring people back to places where density and transit infrastructure already exists.  Consider North Philadelphia, where subway and regional rail along with heavy bus access runs through burnt out neighborhoods.  Should we really try to follow the suburbanites who fled those neighborhoods and now can’t get to work, or rebuild those neighborhoods which are already location efficient?

  8. I agree with Walkabout21 — preserving sprawling land use patterns by building out transit options involves a huge investment in fixed costs, and would result in only marginal improvements in energy use.  We should expect the costs to transport people to be very similar whether we end up with most people driving cars or riding trains and buses (there may be small improvements, but it is not a panacea.)

    The much better course of action is to invest in re-development of areas that are denser, more walkable, and closer to jobs.  It is hubris to think that a man should be able to commute 100 miles each day to work.

  9. From experience within my own family, I think that even when the externalized costs of a long commute are explained, they’re ignored.  My sister and her husband bought a house 80 and 30 miles away from their respective workplaces – and still they fail to see how at best, they’re only breaking even with fuel/payments/quality or life on what they believe they save on property taxes (PA vs. NJ).  I tend not to have sympathy with these so-called sob stories as a result.  Exurbanites are the worst when it comes to this issue, and they can reap what they sow, for all I care.

  10. This guy could save a helluva lot of time and money by getting a job closer to home that doesn’t require a trip across the Bay.  If he can’t find a job that pays equivalent, he could take a job that pays $8k less per year and save the time.  If he wants to/can move, he should be willing to pay $163k more for a house closer to work, which would be about as much mortgage as $8k could pay.  His general cost of living would be the same but at least he’d have more time.

  11. My problem is not my housing, but job sprawl. I take the bus everyday about 2.5 hours roundtrip. I live in a walk score neighborhood of 100 in SF. But I have leave the city to work. Don’t give me that crap about ‘why don’t you find a job closer?’, Ive tried with no luck. 

    Piece of mind doing what I love is far better than taking job that is closer for the sake of being closer. Also, when I looked to move to NY I noticed that many good jobs were a 1 hour+ commute to Delaware or Jersey. Ironically, I think these sites were chosen because they offered cheap land with free parking.

  12. I do understand that there are some cases where people really are stuck and doing the best they can, but I can’t help but think there are a good number of people that have made, and continue to make, really poor decisions. Find a lower-paying job within three miles of your home, and you can walk each way. Great exercise. Or, if that isn’t an option, move closer to your workplace. Surely the $1275/month that Darren can save by not having a car can pay for higher rent and another transportation option, like a bicycle, new shoes, or a transit pass.

  13. If Ro spends $25/day on gas + $8.50 BART round trip + $5 bridge toll from Vallejo to Richmond + insurance + maintenance, perhaps she should consider moving into SF with a roommate or two and ditching her 17 year old gas guzzler.  Is it possible that the value of living at home (and savings associated with it) outweighs her transportation costs and time spent commuting?

  14. I think it’s fair to say that 1/3 of these stories are people who brought it on themselves, 1/3 is some mix of situation and personal decisions, and 1/3 are really just stuck in crappy situations through no fault of their own. Don’t let that first 1/3 who are total morons prevent us from seeing the real need of that latter 1/3 to have additional mobility or relocation options to improve their lot in life.

  15. Responding to OctaviusIII (reply buttons are missing?):

    There are other factors too. For example, he “should” be willing to take lower-paying work closer to home. But there are good reasons not to do that. For example, if he gets laid off, he’d get unemployment based on his salary. If he took a job closer to home and then got laid off, he’d be doubly screwed.

    And yes, he “should” be willing to pay a lot more for a house closer in. But if he’s underwater like so many people are, that may not be an option.

    In general, I think a lot of these choices are “sticky”. If, five years ago, people decided to buy and live in a house, they’ll stick with that decision and try to make it work for a long time before throwing in the towel, even if it becomes obvious that it’s not going to work out. Same thing for buying a car that’s too expensive.

  16. I was out of work for over a year and it was in large part because there were no jobs that I could reach without buying a car and anteing up $20+ a day for tolls. There were jobs opening in suburban NJ, but there’s no reverse-commute options–there was no way to reach these jobs on mass transit, and tolls on the Hudson river and the Verrazano Bridge were $20 a day or thereabouts. The car commute paradigm is broken. There’s no way a Walmart greeter can afford a car commute five days a week, and (once you throw in the tolls), the people who can afford a big commute with lots of tolls are few and far between.

    the ‘burbs are dependent on cheap oil prices. Nobody sees a day when gas drops back to $2 a gallon, and high energy prices impact the manufacture of cars. A lot of the exurban housing built in the last decade will never be sold because you can’t get to and from a job and pay the mortgage as well.

  17. Sure, everybody could have made better decisions, but why does America have so many people who have racked up massive debts on cars, houses, and boats (!) that they don’t need? Is it something in the water—was the US overcome, coast to coast, by some kind of bad-decision-making bacteria?

    No. Human frailty is more or less constant across time and geography. We must be doing something wrong, “countrywide”, when half our people are failing at the basics of personal finance and planning. It’s their fault, sure, but helping them is also our responsibility. We’ll get a good sense of that pretty soon, unless we decide to just let Americans starve.

    As others have said, restoring the transit friendly places we’ve abandoned makes a lot more sense than praying for train tracks to connect the sprawly dots. It’s also a lot more pleasant than riding infrequent and unreliable buses, which is the only transit we could actually afford for sprawl. We won’t have to convince people chose density over misery, but we should do what we can to make their transition easier.

  18. Not only are many people utterly incapable of understanding how a long commute to a higher paying job often makes no sense for themselves, but they fail to understand it for others.  I remember when I graduated college that it simply didn’t make any sense for me to take a job in my field (electronics engineering) because it would have meant not only car dependency, but relocation to places I would hate living in as well.  My rationale here was sure, I may have made 3 times as much, but it all would have went out the window for housing and car expenses (and probably health-care costs in the long run as car dependency took its toll on my health and my mental well-being) .  I actually had more disposible income (and a lot more free time) staying with my parents and taking whatever lousy jobs existed within easy commuting range (say 45 minutes or less by subway/bus).  To this day I don’t regret this decision, even more so after seeing how others who virtually gave up their lives for their career are thrown out on the street by companies who no longer want them as they pass their mid 40s.  But none of my relatives ever understood my reasoning.  Apparently in this country you’re supposed to give up literally everything just for your job.  And commute an extra 30 miles each way, even if a job only pays $20 more per week (I had an uncle who did that).  The time and money costs of commuting seem to be externalized by the majority.

    Nevertheless, this article and some of the posts highlight a major problem-the lack of many types of jobs located within transit-friendly areas.  Why doesn’t a world-class city like New York have an abundance of science/engineering jobs, for example?  It has three of the best science high schools in the country.  Are the graduates of these schools all supposed to leave a city many might love, and work in a dull suburban office park, to pursue a career they enjoy?  Or instead make the choice I did, and remain perpetually underemployed, in order to continue to live in the type of place they want to live in?  Why must so many employers relocate to sprawlville?  That’s really the root of the problem, in addition to the huge housing stock built in the exurbs in the last 2 decades.

    The only light on the horizon is the fact that sprawl is economically and environmentally unsustainable.  As we’re already seeing, large tracts of exurban housing will remain unsold, eventually returning to nature.  It looks like the trend of companies relocating ever further out is ending since they’re having a harder time getting employees in these places.  What we need next is to build large amounts of affordable housing in places which already have decent transit options, rather than expecting transit to magically come to places which are too spread out to make it viable.  We also need to encourage employers to return to these places.  Sure, some may have higher bottom line expenses, but that will often be compensated for by better employees.  It’s hard to see how anyone can really be ready to put in a full day’s work after spending 2 hours sitting in a car in nerve-wracking traffic.

  19. The guy in the video “drives 560 miles a month and spends $500 in gas”.  So right there the message is ruined and our time is wasted.  Very poor.  Too bad, ‘cause Lisas book Oil on The Brain was pretty informative.

  20. People keep trashing Darren Flenoy for the big  monthly car payment. but if he didn’t have anything for a downpayment and/or if he had lousy credit (and someone with sketchy employment history may well be there), that’s not a surprise. even if he paid a hundred or so less, he’d still be putting aside a thousand a month for a car. And he didn’t choose to commute 80 miles a day–like many people, he lost his primary job and has been taking whatever he could find.

  21. “Why does America have so many people who have racked up massive debts on cars, houses, and boats (!) that they don’t need? Is it something in the water—was the US overcome, coast to coast, by some kind of bad-decision-making bacteria?”
    Advertising, which promotes the fulfillment of non-material needs with the purchase of goods and services.

  22. in my example.

    i spend per month:
    $63 for gas
    $0 for payments
    $116 for insurance
    $25 in tolls.

    why?  because i take mass transit.  (although not free either)
    plus i buy reasonably well kept USED cars WITHOUT going into debt.
    Used doesnt have to mean lemons.  i own a nice bmw 3 series.

    my car(s) are only for recreation or when i absolutely need to drive.

  23. What the article doesn’t point out is that housing near job centers are much higher than housing far from it. San Francisco gentrified so much in the 90’s the middle class was forced out.  Now , the cheap house or rental in the suburbs is costing in commute costs. I work on high end custom homes. I cant afford to live where I work and commute 2-3 hours a day.  Gas and tolls cost me $700 per month.  I own my work truck and need it as a tool.  Rents close to the areas I work will cost $2500 + for a 2 bedroom, that’s twice my mortgage.

  24. The problem with the central parts of the Bay Area is like the problem with New York City:  most transit and pedestrian oriented cities in the U.S. were devastated economically, socially and fiscally from 1950 to 2000.  Very few are left that are viable places to live.

    Now that more people want to live in those places, they are scarce, and the prices are extreme.  If there were 100 San Franciscos in the U.S., San Francisco would not be so expensive.  They are harder to create than they are to destroy, however, especially when legacy costs (high taxes, bad schools, high crime, physical blight) exceed legacy assets. 

  25. I’m kind of appalled with the lack of contextual understanding about the plight of the security guard in these comments. Let me try to fill in some of what it likely is.

    He lives in Vallejo. Vallejo is an old industrial/Navy town very down on its luck. Until the Mare Island Naval Shipyard located alongside the city shutdown, the city’s economic base was heavily industrial. Its population was heavily blue collar racial minorities. The jobs lost after the shutdown of the base have not been replaced resulting in very high chronic unemployment for blue collar workers in that area of Solano County. The City of Vallejo itself just emerged from a municipal bankruptcy. Vallejo is politely termed a “gritty” town. Think of it as a smaller and more out of the way version of Oakland. Blue collar employment for those with limited educations is very hard to find. Getting a job closer to work might be near impossible even if he took a pay cut.

    I don’t know what to say to the suggestion that the guard pay an extra $168K for a house closer by work. If he owns a house at all, he probably can’t afford to buy a new house of any sort. It is almost like saying “let them eat cake.” 

    Security guard work is a poor substitute for a solid blue collar job. The hours can be very varied. Guard jobs which offer benefits are rare. Jobs of this sort are not necessarily very secure. Because of the nature of the work hours can make public transportation unusable. Security guards are most necessary outside conventional work hours. Without a car, many if not most security guard jobs are not available. This is not the type of job for which moving makes a lot of sense. And needless to say, the jobs don’t pay that much. Which is why openings are always being advertised.

    Some of the discussion here on Streetsblog have the weakness that they are limited by the middle class, highly educated perspectives of those participating. These seems to a lack of understanding of the practical issues faced by working class people of more limited income and choices.

  26. “Car payment” and “Nissan Pathfinder” are all the cultural clues you need to figure this story out.

    The rest is justifications for their choices.  Poor examples indeed.

  27. Well what do you expect , when the government keeps taxing the heck out of gasoline .
    They are killing commuters in California and suburbia

  28. Emmily_Litella: It’s 560 miles a week, not a month. 80 miles a day. At $4/gal., $500 a month in gas is about 19 miles per gallon.

    Oh, and sploinkk: CA gas tax is 35c. So let’s eliminate it– the guy would save a whole $44 a month. His problems will be solved, and who needs road maintenance anyway?

  29. At first blush, you wonder why these people do not arrange their lives so they can live closer to work or school, seeing that their auto expenses more than offer the “discount” they are getting living in cheaper housing miles from anything. What the people featured in this article are spending monthly on gasoline and car expenses would pay their rent in a more expensive place closer to work and leave them money to spare.

    But then you realize that this is how we have built this country out since WW2. We have built this country to be one massive Energy Trap. We deliberately destroyed our good, dense, closely knit old cities and towns to build auto suburbs with separate-use zoning and cul de sac subdivisions along 6-lane collector roads, that make heavy auto dependence mandatory. Most of the population lives in these places, which include “cities” such as Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, that are extremely anti-urban in their design, looking and functioning like mega-sprawlburbs.

    I’m fortunate to live in one of the few cities in the country where a person can live her life up and down one rail line. I live in Chicago. When you say that a city like Chicago or Boston is “too expensive”, consider that the offset to slightly higher rents and house prices is the freedom from car ownership, or at least a much, much shorter commute and lower fuel costs.

  30. Uh huh, poor Darren. 500 per month on gas. Stupid. 180 on tolls , even stupider. This is one reason why the poor stay poor. There are plenty of ways to get around payin 680 per month just to get to work ?  Carpool ?  What area does he live in where there is no transportation ?  Nothing against Darren, he seems like a hard working person like myself but why does this article make this sound like a social problem when it is an individual problem ? 

  31. How many advertisements do you see for cars? How many do you see for people starting a community of gardeners/shopkeepers/laborers?
    We get the wolf we feed. So far, that wolf is driving a car and buying gas to get home to the pack after driving to the Packer game.
    Can we specifically blame anyone or anything besides GM and the destruction of mass transit (“Internal Combustion” by Edwin Black)?
    The real bottom line is that people seek answers from “on high” (legislation, leaders, or God) when the problems are local and inherent to civilization. (search “Dark Mountain Project”). When individuals have the skills and motivation to produce more for the future than they consume in resources, THEN and only then can they seriously protest a system that they buy into every day when they use its money.

  32. No one needs to drive big SUV for commuting. If she owned an old Honda or Toyota compact car, her gas costs would be cut in half.
        There are also car pooling, and he ferry from Vallejo to San Francisco.

  33. My Wife and I have a fairly long commute. Even so our transportation costs are minimal. We drive an older Prius which gets close to 50MPG, we carpool, and I maintain the car myself. All told we spend about $60 a week on commuting.

     One MAJOR problem with most major metro areas is the cost of housing in and around the major job areas. The cost of renting or buying near where we work is at least 50% more than what we now pay in the area we commute from 45 minutes away. A house costs around $700,000-$900,000 near work and around $450,000-$500,000 where we rent. Overall the cost of living here is ridiculous. A lot of this comes from poor planning and a lot of anti-development- or as we call them ” Not In My Backyard” regulations that makes building new housing very expensive here. So its not so much the commuting that’s an issue. The bigger issue is out of control overpriced housing and a need for more housing in general.

  34. The examples in this article are very poor and at the same time show the cost of living vs commuting argument. First of all the commute from Vallejo to San Francisco is 30 miles. Ro’s 20 mile commute to the Bart station means she takes the train for part of her trip. This is exactly what the article is trying to convey that people should use public transportation. The problem is that public transportation is not free it cost money and in this case about half of her total commute amount which the author just added up into the “Gas” expense bucket. 

    My first job out of college I commuted 100 miles a day in Los Angeles traffic, after one year I moved to live within 2 miles of work as the commute was killing me. The cost of the apartment was much more than I was paying for rent before. But the money I saved on gas pretty much canceled any increase in rent.  

  35. Federal and local gov’ts taxing the &*%! out of gas (Cali has one of the highest gas taxes) and our Federal Reserve has gone on a printing binge driving up the cost of gas (and everything else).
    Sorry, but the last thing Darren and Ro need is more “transportation options for getting to work affordably.”  If they’re having trouble making ends meet now, wait until the bills for those gov’t “transportaion options” come due.

  36. I went from V8 Mercedes & Dodge TRUCKS to a Miata! Now I have low costs & I feel like a 17 year old kid every mile. WTF! I can afford a $450,000 Ferrari or Lexus. In fact, I can write a check for 10 of these. But I have to keep a low profile as a 1% member and feel like a kid doing it… more like a child….. burning rubber, drifting, drag racing, and making my car louder than a 1700CC HARLEY WITH STRAIGHT PIPES!! Don’t grip, use a Miata & enjoy life!!!

  37. The root cause of car dependency is due to suburban sprawl. If things weren’t built so far apart & you could walk to where you needed, dependency on a car would be eliminated.

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